G. H. Allen

Russia in 1905

A Review of Leon Trotsky’s 1905

Source: The Communist Review, July 1923, Vol. 4, No. 3.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

THIS book is not a complete history of the 1905 Russian Revolution. Such a history would occupy many volumes. But, as Trotsky points out in his preface, the book gives the pith and marrow of the Revolution, the most significant happenings of the Revolution, from the point of view of the Russian working class and the International. Which means that it is largely a history of the Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. Only when there are important revolutionary outbreaks elsewhere—for instance, the mutiny in the Black Sea fleet, the agrarian revolts, or the fighting in Moscow in December—does Trotsky turn aside from his narrative of the movement of the working masses of Petersburg.

The immense importance of 1905 is that it is the first detailed Marxist history, and analysis, of the revolutionary movements in Russia of that year, to be made generally available in Western Europe. A history, too, written by one who played a leading part in the events he describes and analyses. First written in German, in 1908-1909, and based on an earlier Russian work of Trotsky’s, the present edition has been translated from a revised and augmented Russian edition published in the early part of last year.

The first fifty-odd pages of the book are occupied with an analysis of Russian social development, which is a masterpiece of compression and lucidity. There are four chapters, entitled respectively “The Social Development of Russia and Tsarism,” “Russian Capitalism,” “The Peasant Class and the Agrarian Question,” and “The Motive Forces of the Russian Revolution.” Trotsky touches on the familiar theme of Russian economic backwardness—primitive peasant agriculture—coupled with the most modern and highly concentrated machine industry, and quotes some extremely interesting comparative statistics of Russian, German, and Belgian industry. To give one example, alone, it appears that there were approximately the same number of large factories in Russia and Germany (employing over 1,000 workers), but that, while the number of workers employed in these large factories was in Germany only 10 per cent. of the total factory working population of the country, in Russia it was 38 per cent.; and the average number of workers per large factory amounted in Russia to 2,400, as against the German 1,900. The significance of the agrarian question is summarised by Trotsky in a sentence: “The crisis of agricultural economy, and the impoverishment of the village narrow more and more the basis of Russian industrial capitalism, which has to depend in the first place on the internal market.” The first step towards settling the agrarian question could be summed up in one word—expropriation.

“By the direct and immediate task which it sets itself, the Russian Revolution is properly bourgeois, for its aim is to free bourgeois society from the trammels and chains of absolutism and feudalism. But the principal motive force of this revolution is constituted by the proletariat—and that is why, by its method, the revolution is proletarian. This contrast has appeared unacceptable and inconceivable to numerous pedants who define the historical rôle of the proletariat by means of statistical calculations or by apparent historical analogies. For them, the providential leader of the Russian Revolution must be the bourgeois democracy, whilst the proletariat which, in fact, marched at the head of events during the whole period of revolutionary enthusiasm, ought to allow itself to be tight bound in the swaddling clothes of an unsound and pedantic theory. For them, the history of one capitalist nation repeats, with more or less important modifications, the history of another. They do not see the process, unique in our time, of world capitalist development which brings together all the countries to which it extends, and which, by the union of local conditions with general conditions, creates a social amalgam of which the nature cannot be defined by searching for historical commonplaces, but only by means of an analysis on a materialist basis.” Here we have the outlook of the Russian liberals, the intelligentsia, the progressive capitalists, the professional classes; in short, the “bourgeois democracy,” admirably exposed. And “an analysis on a materialist basis” revealed in Russia the social weakness, the political and economic insignificance of those classes, the intelligentsia and the petty bourgeoisie, which are historically the basis of “bourgeois democracy.” Russia was ripe for a bourgeois revolution; over-ripe, in fact. The trend and extent of Russian capitalist development, as an integral part of world capitalism, made ready the objective conditions for a telescoping of the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions. This finally happened, of course, in 1917; and it could be clearly foreseen in 1905—right through this book Trotsky foresees it. The liberals, and the doubting Thomases of Menshevism, who thought that the Revolution “ought” to stop (at any rate, for the immediate present) at the bourgeois democratic stage, were merely trying to hold back history. And history, in Trotsky’s flaming phrase at the Soviet Congress on the eve of the seizure of power in November, 1917, duly flung the liberal-Menshevik “garbage” on to its “rubbish heap.”

The criticism of the liberals, weak, vacillating, and futile as they and their policy inevitably were, is handled in this book in masterly fashion. It is done, too, in the most irrefutable way—by letting history itself perform the task. The pathetic hoes of the semi-liberal regime of Prince Sviatopolk-Mirsky, the silly sneers at the January demonstration of the Petersburg workers (“Bloody Sunday”), the support of the political General Strike in October until the “constitutional” manifesto of 31st October, and then the nervous attempt, Canute-like, to command the rising tide, of revolution to retire—Trotsky’s keen analysis of the historical development of the revolution is the most dispassionate, and at the same time most impressive, exposure of liberalism and political opportunism that the present reviewer, at any rate, has yet read. And the criticism of Menshevism goes hand in hand with the criticism of liberalism. Could the position of the moderate, opportunist, “Socialists” and Labourists, be better put than in this passage: “In periods when allied and opposing social forces, by their antagonism as by their mutual reactions, bring a flat calm in politics; when the molecular work of economic development, actually reinforcing the contradictions in society, instead of breaking the political equilibrium, seems rather to affirm it provisionally and to assure to it a kind of permanence-opportunism, devoured with impatience, seeks around itself ‘new’ ways and ‘new’ methods of realizing its aims. It spends its strength in complaints of the insufficiency and uncertainty of its own forces, and looks for ‘allies.’ It flings itself hungrily on the dunghill of liberalism, which it conjures, to which it appeals, and for whose use it invents special formula of action. But the dunghill only exhales its odour of political decomposition. Opportunism then cribs from the heap of dung a few little democratic pearls. It needs allies. It runs to right and to left trying to grab them by the tails of their coats at every street corner. It addresses its faithful followers, and exhorts them to show the kindest attention towards any possible ally. ‘Tact, again tact, and always tact!’ It suffers from a certain disease which is the mania of prudence towards liberalism, the rage for tact—and, in its fury, it deals blows to and wounds the men of its own party.” After an examination of the views of Plekhanov, the extreme right-winger, Trotsky exclaims in a stinging phrase, which would make a splendid motto for the New Leader: “There is here neither theoretical analysis, nor revolutionary politics; one only sees the importunate annotations of a marginal commentator in the great book of events.”

It is impossible here to do anything like justice to the broad sweep of Trotsky’s narrative of the events of 1905; the compositors’ strike developing into a general strike, a general political strike, the formation of the Soviet—as an organ for uniting the working class, irrespective of party or union, in the struggle with the Tsarist State power—the “abdication” of absolutism with the Manifesto of the 31st October, the using of the new-won “liberty,” especially the liberty of the Press, to the utmost—as we read Trotsky’s pages, the whole turmoil of the revolutionary struggle passes before us. The beginnings of counter-revolution, the organisation of pogroms by the Government, the consequent arming of the workers in self-defence, the mutiny at Cronstadt and the application of martial law in Poland, followed by the general strike of November—a protest strike, largely a demonstration of solidarity of the working masses with the mutineers—the peasant revolts, chiefly in the land hungry central provinces, the arrest of the Soviet in December, and the few days’ fierce street fighting in Moscow—all these happenings are related with a vividness and a power of analysis that recall the immortal pages of the Civil War in France.

The “Constitution” of 31st October, forced on Tsarism by the mass action of the workers, was a fraud; as Trotsky calmly told some petty bourgeois radical friends of his, “It is only the prologue to martial law.” Count Witte, the pseudo-liberal, was Prime Minister; but the autocracy subsisted. The Cossack’s whip was still the reality of government, even though it was discreetly wrapped round with a scrap of paper called a Constitution. The general strike had changed nothing in the power of the Government: it had led to much disorganisation, but when it came to its inevitable end, the Government was able to repair damages quite easily, and get the old machine going again. “In the struggle;” says Trotsky, “it is extremely important to weaken one’s adversary: that is the task of the strike. At the same time, it sets on foot the forces of revolution. But neither of these results constitute in themselves a coup d’etat. It is still necessary to seize power from those who hold it, and hand it over to the revolution. That is the essential task. The general strike creates the necessary conditions for this task to be performed, but it is, in itself, inadequate to carry it through successfully.”

The chief support of the Tsarist State lay in the army and the apathy of the peasants; and the days of the October strike emphasised the vital importance of the question, on which side will the army be? They also showed that the revolutionary town had no common policy with the countryside, where revolts, if they took place, lacked any conscious direction—were merely instinctive. The weakness of the Soviet was the weakness of a purely urban revolution. The task of the working class became clear: to organise the countryside and unite it with the town; to create a strong liaison between itself and the army; and to take up arms. The forces of reaction won because “the revolutionary strike, while laying down the hammer, had not yet seized the sword.”

The historic significance of 1905 was that it made these things clear to the Russian workers, and in particular to their most advanced section, the Bolshevik fraction of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. The victory of reaction in 1905-6 and the following years, served but to harden the temper of the masses. The liquidation of the revolution was only temporary. 1905 had resulted from the collapse of Tsarism in an imperialist war: and in his concluding sentence, Trotsky prophetically wonders whether the fate of Tsarism will not be finally sealed till after it has a second time suffered military collapse.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, the issue was still further clarified: in 1915 Trotsky wrote, in answer to a pamphlet by Axelrod, Martov, and other Mensheviks, that “It is not simply a question of a ‘provisional revolutionary government’—an empty formula to which events will take upon themselves to give content—but of a revolutionary workers’ government: it is a question of the conquest of power by the Russian working class . . . power—not in its State form (Constituent Assembly, Republic, United States), but in relation to its social content. The formula of the Constituent Assembly or of the confiscation of landed property has not, actually, an immediate revolutionary significance if the working class is not disposed to struggle for the conquest of power. For if the working class does not tear away power from the monarchy, no one else will be able to accomplish this task."

The second part of this book forms a whole independent of the first part: it contains the story of the trial of the Soviet—including Trotsky’s speech to the tribunal, in which he tore the indictment to shreds, even on its own “legal” grounds—and of Trotsky’s deportation to Siberia, together with a most thrilling account of his escape, and flight many hundred versts in a sleigh drawn by reindeer. This is as good as any adventure story we have read; and it is to be hoped that the translation of this story of Trotsky's escape, which the Y.C.L. had in hand some time ago, will soon be made available.

Our comrades of the French Party, who are responsible for running the Humanité Bookshop, are to be congratulated on their publication of this stately large-octavo book of nearly 400 pages. The printing and general get-up are satisfactory. Of the illustrations, the photographs vary—some very poor, some quite good—but the reproductions of contemporary pencil and crayon sketches are distinctly pleasing. A word of praise must also be given to the translation, which is the work of Comrade Parijamne.